Beautifully Emotive Story on the Cycle of Abandonment
The title gives you a clue. Jang Ji-Gu’s not a mean kid or a bad kid, he’s just stuck. Only 14 years old and living in one room with his sickly grandfather, he’s got reason to be angry at the world but remains a pretty nice kid.
Unsurprisingly, without much supervision he gets caught up in the misdeeds of his equally-troubled friends – and occasionally lets his temper get the better of him. But what teenager doesn’t do that? I rooted for him the whole time.
Directed and written by Kang Yi-Kwan, Juvenile Offender tells the story of an abandoned delinquent who is reunited with his mother after his grandfather passes away.
Told in shades of dark with occasional bursts of brightness, it paints a picture of bleakness begetting bleakness, begging the question: How does one create change?
Jang Ji-Gu is played by Seo Young-Joo and he is fantastic. At age 14 himself, he leads this piece, winning Best Actor at the 2012 Tokyo International Film Festival and Cinemanila International Film Festival for this performance. I couldn’t agree more. Lee Jung-Hyun as Ji-Gu’s mother, Hyo-Seung, is also wonderfully tangible.
Hyo-Seung is already caught in the poverty/under-education wheel. When you’re perpetually behind in everything, it’s hard to catch up. Throw into the mix a kid you’d given up and forgotten about – one with problems of his own. It’s bound to get on top of you.
It’s Ji-Gu’s grandfather’s death that brings the two together. While Ji-Gu is detained, without a caregiver, his grandfather doesn’t survive. Ji-Gu is briefly allowed to leave detention for the funeral and it becomes clear how alone he is in the world. A sympathetic care-worker takes the time to search for Ji-Gu’s mother.
There’s a wonderful moment when Ji-Gu graduates from the centre and the aforementioned care-worker gives him a heartfelt hug. You don’t see either of their faces close-up but it feels like one of the few instances where this character is on the receiving end of kindness.
Mother and son reunite and try to create some sense of normalcy while getting to know one another. She also has a criminal record, gave birth at 17 and isn’t particularly stable. There are moments when you genuinely wonder who’s parenting whom.
Even so, they begin to build a relationship. And you can’t help but smile sadly through conversations like this:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I really hated it when people asked me that question.
Oh, I have one. A millionaire. I’m going to earn a lot of money.
Two years behind his grade, because of time spent ‘in,’ schools don’t want to accept him, even with a mother to advocate. The schools give placatory excuses but they’re not keen to disrupt their institutes for a kid with a record.
Throughout the story, the adults talk around Ji-Gu, making decisions unilaterally. Alternately he’s solely responsible for himself and his grandfather, then directed by adults who expect him to comply. Just because he’s young and inarticulate doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to say, but he’s rarely given the opportunity.
A third into the story and Ji-Gu receives some shocking news that turns his new world upside down. The cycle begins again. This poor kid can’t make a right move with a map tattooed on his arm.
Even with incessant crap coming at him, Ji-Gu keeps going, keeps aspiring, keeps finding ways to take the next step. He thinks with his heart. But without any real assistance or guidance, just keeps on inevitably stumbling.
The story may sound like a downer but it is incredibly hopeful – perhaps because of his youth, perhaps because Ji-Gu displays a quiet strength, even if he doesn’t yet know how to use it. Whilst painfully honest about the system and human nature, this work is an incredible combination of sensitivity and authenticity.
Part of the line-up for the 2020 London Korean Film Festival, drama, Juvenile Offender, will be available to watch either online or in participating cinemas. Check the website for evolving schedule and guidelines.